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HomeAwardsOscar contenders: Makeup

Oscar contenders: Makeup

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By Leonard Klady
For most, the quintessence of movie makeup is the process in which an actor is transformed from a teenager into a wizened old man. In that respect, Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man would stand as the template for all honors accorded in this Oscar category. It’s the sort of rush to judgment not borne out by the winners and nominees in the craft’s relatively brief Oscar history.
Dick Smith’s achievement in Little Big Man wasn’t officially unrecognized and it wasn’t until honors for the best of 1981 that the work of makeup artists received an official Academy category. That year Rick Baker was honored for An American Werewolf in London and subsequent work that’s been accorded a golden statuette includes Amadeus, The Fly, Ed Wood, The Nutty Professor, Elizabeth, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frida.
The category is one of the special achievement honors involving a juried selection committee empowered to nominate up to three films or to determine there was nothing of special merit, as occurred in 1983. Makeup is a somewhat misleading characterization, as most voters associate it with powder and rouge.
The category is defined in the Academy rules as “any change in the appearance of a performer’s face, or hair, or body created by the application of cosmetics, three-dimensional materials, prosthetic appliances or wigs and hairpieces, applied directly to the performer’s face or body.”
To the outsider, the films that have been nominated over the years provide little clue to a bias or preference within the craft. Herculean work such as Quest for Fire has made the cut as well as the more intimate styling seen in Driving Miss Daisy. A makeup artist tried vainly to explain what the nominating committee scrutinizes in the annual bake off when seven semifinalists present production reels from their eligible films. Finally, she shrugged and said that when one’s worked in the industry for 20 or 30 years, you can differentiate between easy and hard; craft and artistry.
Still, it’s probably the most difficult category to predict. Sequels are virtually never on the final ballot. Though Peter Owen and Richard Taylor received Oscars for their work on the first The Lord of the Rings in 2001, they were not mentioned the following year. There is the onus and understanding that substantial new work has to be present in a sequel, and that’s often difficult to quantify.
The one sequel that could possibly jump through the committee hoops this year is Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines. Stan Winston and Jeff Dawn received Oscars for Terminator 2 in 1991 and both were involved in the latest installment. However, as a maximum of two names can be submitted per film it’s possible the producers could submit Dawn and hair stylist Cydney Cornell. Regardless, techniques and advancements in the past decade have altered the job and the potentials, even if they render a comparable effect or a look that is kindred to an earlier film.
Of all the 2003 releases with a reliance on makeup, it would be tough to come up with a more obvious choice than The Cat in the Hat. Steve Johnson again enters Seussland. If the award criteria gauged the craft’s contribution per frame, it would be impossible to beat, with every character in the movie requiring cosmetic, hair and prosthetic work.
Though the ballot is restricted to no more than three nominees (a special exception was made in 1999 when the committee’s third rank choice was locked in a tie), members of the selection committee have consistently strived to highlight as broad a spectrum of work as possible and have been comparatively democratic about including a wide range of challenges, from Titanic to Shadow of the Vampire. Drama, horror and comedy, as well as historic pageantry, have all taken home the Oscar for makeup.
Certainly among this year’s indie crop consideration has to be given Greg Cannom and Keiith Vanderlan’s work on The Singing Detective. The lead character, afflicted with a hideous and crippling skin disease, has to be seen as grotesque and still human and the 1950s period settings of flashbacks put enormous demands on the picture’s wigmakers.
Wigs also figure prominently in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the lavish Napoleonic-era naval epic based on the popular novels of Patrick O’Brian.
It’s the sort of left-field possibility that, while not obvious, recognizes a level of professionalism in a film brimming with technical superlatives. Kate Biscoe and Barney Burman were central to the makeup effects, along with Singing Detective’s Vanderlan.
A personal favorite but an admittedly very long shot is School of Rock, a raucous comedy in which many key characters are put through the “transformative” Jekyll and Hyde process that is intrinsically a visual gold mine. For a broad comedy it is very subtle work.
As with any award doled out by peers, one would expect that favorites would emerge on the order of Edith Head in costume design. And although such stalwarts as Baker, Winston, Westmore and Ve Neill have all received their golden man, it does appear to the outsider that it’s a category relatively free of slavish fawning and truly appreciative of innovation regardless of its source.
Other potential contenders include the laudatory period work on view in Seabiscuit, and one can’t help but assume that Cold Mountain will also feature makeup work of an extraordinary pedigree.

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